Dispatches From the Dark Side: My Battle With Suicidal Feelings
Trigger warning for talk of suicide
If I was writing about almost any other health issue, I wouldn’t hesitate to post this.
If I had diabetes, or cancer, or liver failure, you wouldn’t feel strange reading this.
If I started out by saying, “I went to the hospital last night because I had the flu,” no one would think twice. No one would call it oversharing. No one would make me feel like I should be ashamed or embarrassed.
But I didn’t go to the hospital because I had the flu.
I went to the hospital last night because I wanted to die.
I mean, I say that, and that’s how I felt, but the truth is that I didn’t really want to die, did I? If that had really been my intention, I would have just done it. I wouldn’t have talked about it, wouldn’t have told anyone, and certainly wouldn’t agreed to go to the hospital.
Intention is tricky, though, slippery even, all tangled up with impulse, drive and desire; I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it is that I actually want. It’s like peeling an onion, folding back layers and layers of truths and semi truths, never able to really get to the core of how or why I feel these things.
I’m not writing this because I want your pity, or comfort, or advice (although you can offer them if you want to).
I’m writing this because I want to be honest. I want to be like someone who paints their self-portrait and doesn’t spare any details; a self-portrait that shows you all my pimples, the dark smudges underneath my eyes, the crease that bisects my forehead after of a lifetime of squinting because I don't like to wear my glasses.
I’m writing this because I don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed anymore, and for some reason saying these things publicly makes that easier. It’s like racing to tell all of your darkest secrets before your ex-best friend can betray your trust; you get to keep some kind of control over the situation. Sort of.
I’m writing this because I want to talk about it, and this is the only way that I know how. I’ve developed this online voice, this sort of character that’s both me and at the same time an amplification of me, a louder, brasher, more combative version of myself. It’s easier for me to write about this in this character; I would never be able to look you in the eyes and say these things.
I promise that we don’t have talk about this in person. The next time we meet, we don’t even have to refer to what’s written here.
But right now I do want to talk about wanting to die. If you’re not up for that, I totally give you permission to stop reading.
I wish I could tell you why I want to die, but I can’t. The truth is that I have a good life, maybe the best. I’m married to someone that I love very much, someone who loves me a great deal in return. My son is amazing; I’m not even sure that there are words to describe how great he is. I enjoy my work. I like where I live.
On paper, I should be very happy.
But still, I want to die.
Image: Anne Thériault
I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you what it feels like.
It feels like all of the days ahead of me are grey and blank and empty. Not empty in a way that makes me feel like I have the possibility of filling them, but empty in the sense of being blank and hopeless.
It feels like I'm wearing a shirt that’s rough, scratchy, uncomfortable, and that shirt is my skin and I can’t take it off.
It feels like discovering that all of my favourite foods suddenly taste like cardboard, but I eat and eat and eat anyway because I need something to fill all that empty space.
It feels like standing in direct sunlight, feeling in on my back, my shoulders, my head, but never having my brain think sun. All it can think is heat. Like there’s this distinction, this appreciation that I can’t make anymore; everything is broken down to its most basic elements. Nothing is good or beautiful – everything is awful and dull in its own way.
It feels like the life-support system in my brain failed, and no one bothered to install a back-up. So now the ship is going down and the lights are flickering and we’re running out of oxygen and everyone is panicking.
It feels like being tired all of the time, like never being able to get enough sleep.
I just want to sleep.
I do things. I go out, and I spend money on things that I used to enjoy, in my former life, the life that, on the surface at least, is nearly indistinguishable from the one I live now. I don’t enjoy anything anymore, though, and spending money on things that don’t make me feel better only adds another layer of shame and guilt onto what I’m already feeling.
At home, at night, I feel trapped. The lights are too bright, the air too dry. I can’t sleep. I can’t read. I can’t watch TV. I can’t write. I can’t talk. I pace and pace and pace, trying to get rid of the prickly, irritable energy that’s building up in my veins, in my bones. I think that I could feel better if the apartment was clean, if the dishes were done and the bathroom sink scrubbed, but I don’t know where to begin, so I pace some more.
I just don’t want to feel anything anymore. I don’t even want to feel the good things. I just want to go to a place that’s beyond feeling.
And I know that suicide is selfish. But I also know that if I was dead, I wouldn’t care about anything anymore. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the people that I’ve left behind.
But I can’t help imagining Theo, what it would be like for him if I were to die. How he would cry and cry for me. How he would never be able to understand that I wasn’t coming back again. I think about how I would break his heart, think about the fault lines that I would trace along that tiny, powerful muscle. I think about how his heart would hold those marks forever, cracks that would break over and over for the rest of his life and never, ever heal.
I don’t really want to die.
I just want to sleep and sleep and sleep forever.
But it sort of amounts to the same thing, really, which is why I went to the hospital last night. Because I love Theo and don’t want to leave him.
Because even if I couldn’t feel anything anymore, I would still find some way to miss him.
I live in a big city, so there’s a special hospital just for head cases like me. It even has two sites, one downtown and one in the west end. I went to the one downtown.
When you get there, they lock you into the ER waiting room. There is a sign on the door that says AWOL Flight Risk. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t think they would like that.
There was a woman screaming in a room at the end of the hall.
There was a young man in a suit brought in by two police officers.
There was an unconscious woman brought in on a gurney. Her feet were bare.
There was a girl on the bench next to me, lying with her head on her mother’s lap. Her father was there, too. He spoke to her only once, saying,
“You said that at the last minute something told you not to jump. What was it?”
But she didn’t answer.
While I was there, two code whites were called, which means that there’s a violent patient somewhere in the hospital. One of them, according to the man on the intercom, had a weapon. Both calls sent the ER staff into a flurry, running for doors and phones and elevators.
And I thought, I don’t belong here. I am not having an emergency. These people are having emergencies. I am someone who is fine, only a little sad sometimes. I am coping. I get up every day, go to work, take care of Theo. I am fine. I just have to be stronger, better, less self-indulgent.
And I wanted to leave, but I didn’t.
Finally it was my turn to see the doctor. She was young, kind. Her outfit wouldn’t have looked out of place in my closet, and I coveted her glasses.
She listened to me, took a few notes. Recommended a few things - a book, a different type of therapy, that sort of stuff.
But she said that her main prescription was for me to try to prioritize things that make me happy.
I’m not sure how easily I'll be able to do that, but I like it anyway. I’m strangely pleased that instead of having me try yet another pill, she handed me a piece of paper telling me to prioritize my own happiness. It seems like something that would happen in a book, or a movie, and I’ve always wanted to live in a book or a movie.
So how do I feel now?
Raw, I guess.
The same, I guess.
Maybe a little more hopeful, so that’s a start.
I still can’t stop reading Anne Sexton’s Wanting To Die.
I still can’t stop reading Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, his Last Letter.
But maybe I’ve read them a few times less today than I did yesterday.
I am trying to find some happy way to end this post, but I can’t think of any. I want to offer you some kind of hope. Then again, if I had cancer, or diabetes, would I feel that same urge to comfort you, to take care of you? Maybe. I don’t know.
I will leave you with this, one of my favourite passages from the Bell Jar. It’s as true for me now as it was for Sylvia Plath when she wrote it more than 50 years ago. It's from a scene that takes place shortly after the protagonist has attempted suicide and subsequently been admitted to a mental hospital.
“Don’t you want to get up today?”
“No.” I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.
“You see, it’s normal.” I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect it, the way I always did. “You see, it’s normal, what do you keep taking it for?”
I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.
I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head.
But since I do have something wrong with my head, I’m glad I’ve got all of you to listen.
For anyone who is in a state of mental health crisis, here is a link to the Mental Health Crisis line. You can also call Telehealth, if you’re in Ontario. If you are experiencing any kind of depression or are having suicidal thoughts, please, please call one of the numbers above, or else contact your doctor or local mental health crisis line.